Cardinal William Levada: Defender of Catholic Unity and Truth

ANALYSIS: The prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the highest-ranking U.S. prelate in Church history.

Pope Benedict XVI (r) greets then-Archbishop William Levada on June 3, 2005. Archbishop Levada was named guardian of Church doctrine that year, taking over the post of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he became pope.
Pope Benedict XVI (r) greets then-Archbishop William Levada on June 3, 2005. Archbishop Levada was named guardian of Church doctrine that year, taking over the post of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he became pope. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano/Arturo Mari/AFP/Getty Images)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Cardinal William Levada was the highest-ranking U.S. prelate in Church history, but little known outside of the Vatican and California. 

And though San Francisco media outlets once dubbed him “Darth Vader” — a dismissive term for an orthodox Churchman — his pragmatic bent upended expectations.

Cardinal Levada, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), died Sept. 26 in Rome at the age of 83. 

Pope Francis expressed his condolences to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where Cardinal Levada served as archbishop from 1995 to 2005, before succeeding Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the helm of the CDF. There, in some of his most noteworthy accomplishments, he oversaw the adjudication of clergy-abuse cases, launched an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and helped secure a theological framework for urgent Curial reforms.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was appointed CDF prefect after Cardinal Levada’s retirement, told the Register that “the congregation was for him always a matter of the heart.”  

“He was influenced by Cardinal Ratzinger’s theology and ways of working when he served as an official in the congregation for many years. And thus he was familiar with the great challenges of the Church in the world today,” said Cardinal Müller.

“Cardinal Levada was a good Christian, a zealous bishop and shepherd of the faithful,” his successor added, “and, as cardinal prefect, a brother and friend, appreciated by Pope Benedict.”

The bond between Benedict and the U.S. cardinal dated back to the early days of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate, when the German Church leader and theologian was the prefect of the CDF, and Father Levada served on the staff of the congregation.

Years later, the bond was cemented after Archbishop Levada was invited to join the small editorial committee for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Californian’s reserved style and remarkable work ethic made him a valued collaborator during the six-year project.

In a 2017 interview with the Register at his residence on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, Cardinal Levada sought to explain why Pope Benedict, one of the leading theologians of his generation, had chosen a Church leader from the U.S. who had no special claim to academic brilliance to succeed him at the CDF.

“He is a great theologian; and now he is Pope, and he doesn’t need a great theologian as prefect,” said Cardinal Levada, as he recalled his effort to make sense of his appointment. “He needs someone who knows the congregation — its personnel and procedures — who speaks Italian and who has had experience dealing with the sex-abuse crisis.”


Four Notable Classmates

Ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1961, he attended St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo with three other friends who would also rise through the ranks of the Church: Archbishop Emeritus George Niederauer of San Francisco, Bishop Emeritus Tod Brown of Orange, California, and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

After serving as a parish priest and teaching theology at St. John’s, he was appointed in 1976 to the staff of the CDF and taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

He was made an auxiliary bishop for Los Angeles in 1983 and named archbishop of Portland, Oregon, in 1986.

While in Portland, he sought to ramp up vocations and strengthen formation at Mount Angel Seminary.

He also grappled with the fallout from mishandled clergy sexual-abuse cases that would result in the archdiocese filing for bankruptcy in 2004, the first in the nation to take such action.

During this period, Archbishop Levada wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, successfully arguing for the laicization of a priest who had completed a prison sentence for abusing a minor. But he faced criticism for his handling of several other cases.

In 1995, when he succeeded the embattled San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, the change of the guard was seen as a reprieve for a progressive incumbent, who faced a series of crises, from legal action over church closures to allegations of pedophilia and fraud against chancery officials, and who had received permission from Pope John Paul II to retire early, at age 66.

Star Wars, the film, was big when he came here, and he was portrayed by some of the media as ‘Darth Vader,’ who had come down from Portland to straighten out the archdiocese,” remembered Msgr. Harry Schlitt, a retired San Francisco priest who served as the vicar general of the archdiocese during Archbishop Levada’s tenure.

“Being accepted was hard,” Msgr. Schlitt told the Register. “But he met with every pastor and priest, and the second time he saw them he could call them by name. He was a master of memory.”

The new archbishop won support for reopening several churches, relaunching the diocesan newspaper, and boosting vocations.


Distinctive Leadership Style

Indeed, his tenure in San Francisco showcased a distinctive leadership style that blended orthodoxy with pragmatism, disarming some naysayers in this liberal bastion.

As a member of the drafting committee of the recently promulgated Catechism of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Levada was eager to introduce this work to the local Church, with the goal of strengthening formation and dispelling confusion over Catholic moral teaching in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Msgr. Schlitt said the archbishop would also be remembered for his unexpected response to a thorny challenge raised by a San Francisco ordinance, which required city contractors to provide spousal benefits to same-sex partners.

If the archdiocese had refused to extend the benefits, its agencies would have lost city contracts. But compliance with the ordinance would violate Church teaching on marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Archbishop Levada adopted a third path: He modified archdiocesan policy, allowing employees to choose an additional member of their household to receive benefits, whether a spouse or another relative.

Msgr. Schlitt described the outcome as a win for both the families of archdiocesan employees and the Church. But the archbishop’s response remains controversial to this day.

“Some might argue that Levada’s solution to the city ordinance was ‘brilliant.’ I strongly disagree,” E. Christian Brugger, professor of moral theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary at Boynton Beach, Florida, told the Register.

Citing the U.S. bishops’ recently revised “Ethical and Religious Directives” (ERDs), published in 2018, Brugger noted that the bishops had rightly become more cautious about entering into “joint ventures with non-Catholic institutions” that could undermine the Church’s credibility to speak on life and sexuality issues.

With these concerns in mind, Brugger concluded that “even if the archbishop’s solution was not intrinsically immoral, it was still grossly ill-advised because the clear public message it gave — I remember it well — was that we Catholics don’t take this marriage inviolability stuff very seriously.”

“When faced with political backlash or financial penalties,” Brugger said, “we knowingly extend marital-type benefits to people we know not to be married, indeed know to be incapable of marriage.”  


Dealing With Clergy Abuse

During his tenure in San Francisco, Archbishop Levada sought to put his hard-won experience with clergy-abuse cases in Portland to work.

The New York Times offered a mixed assessment of his record on this issue in a 2010 review of his handling of cases in Portland and San Francisco, but noted that he “was ahead of other church officials on the issue at times, setting up an independent committee to vet abuse cases and calling for greater accountability from church leaders.”

In an interview with the Register for this story, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco defended Cardinal Levada’s efforts to improve the local Church’s response to allegations against local priests.

“He did great work early on when this was exploding, and I am the beneficiary of that,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

Cardinal Levada also served on the U.S.-Vatican commission that revised the sex-abuse norms governing the Church in this country, and Archbishop John Wester of Albuquerque, who served as vicar for clergy under Archbishop Levada, told the Register that his range of experience on this issue gave him additional credibility at the Vatican when he led the CDF.

“He brought to Rome a lot of wisdom, experience and best practices in this area,” said Archbishop Wester.

As the prefect, Cardinal Levada oversaw the adjudication of clergy-abuse cases, a responsibility given to the CDF by Pope St. John Paul II in his 2001 motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.

No doubt, one of the new prefect’s most significant actions was the rapid removal of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, from active ministry in 2006. And in the process, he incurred significant pushback.

“Not everyone was on board, but they understood Pope Benedict’s position,” Cardinal Levada said, as he looked back on his campaign to strengthen the Vatican’s response to clergy-abuse allegations, including claims against powerful Church figures, during his 2017 interview with the Register.

Last year, when contacted about reports that the Vatican had failed to act on allegations of sexual misconduct against the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick, the prefect emeritus declined to comment. The Holy See has yet to release the findings of its forensic review of archival documents regarding McCarrick.


Church Reform

Cardinal Levada also made waves after approving a 2009 doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the controversial organization that represented the majority of U.S. religious orders for women.

The investigation produced a report that exposed “serious doctrinal problems” and pointed to the organization’s failure to effectively support the pro-life witness of the Church, among other issues.

“Pope Benedict appointed him to this most important office of the Roman Curia, having set the standard for over two decades in his work as prefect … for how this congregation should promote and defend Catholic doctrine on behalf of the Supreme Pastor of Christianity,” said Cardinal Müller, as he surveyed his predecessor’s record and sought to affirm the congregation’s unchanging mission during a time of theological turmoil in the Church. 

As prefect, Cardinal Levada also responded to calls for Curial reform by proposing a strong theological foundation for such changes, thus avoiding the danger of reducing the debate to a matter of bureaucratic processes and institutional “restructuring.”

“At a consistory of cardinals concerned with the reform of the Curia, he recommended in the presence of the Pope an article by me in L’Osservatore Romano,” said Cardinal Müller.

In the article, “I made it clear that the reform of the Curia does not consist in a pragmatic restructuring of an administrative apparatus, but that it must be preceded by a theological and spiritual reflection on the role of the Roman Church, whose head is the pope.”

But as the Vatican and San Francisco Archdiocese mourn the death of this American prelate, Catholic commentators expressed surprise that he was not better known in this country, nor did he play a visible role in the theological controversies of this period.  

“It’s noteworthy that, having risen to the highest Vatican post an American has ever held, he was still a relative unknown,” said Philip Lawler, the author of several books, including The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture.

There is no doubt, however, about where the cardinal stood. During his 2017 interview with the Register, Cardinal Levada took up this topic, as he considered proposals to give national bishops’ conferences more autonomy in matters of faith and morals and affirmed the CDF’s central role as a source of unity for the universal Church.

“I don’t expect any dramatic decentralization,” Cardinal Levada said.

And his explanation for that prediction highlights the late cardinal’s theological conviction that the Church must always remain true to its fundamental mission, rather than bend to prevailing political currents.

Such decentralist proposals, Cardinal Levada advised, are “based on a mindset regarding Church structures that is almost entirely derived from a political view of structures, and that doesn’t take into account the theological roots of the Church: how the structures should seek to preserve and enhance what Jesus himself has left us and established as the Church.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

The Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, contributed to this report.